Football saved David Duke from alcohol and despair

David Duke has to check his diary. When can he do the interview? Wednesday’s no good as he’s been invited by Alex Salmond to give a speech at Stirling Castle.

David Duke has to check his diary. When can he do the interview? Wednesday’s no good as he’s been invited by Alex Salmond to give a speech at Stirling Castle.

Thursday he can’t make either as he’s meeting Sir Tom Hunter. Friday then? Nope. He’s seeing the head of RBS. He has some time, though, between that appointment and his flight to Doha where he, Boris Becker and Dame Kelly Holmes are among invited speakers at an annual conference which seeks to improve society through sport.

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Duke is in demand, a jet-setter, go-getter and social entrepreneur. Yet it was not always thus. In 2003, he was homeless, seemingly futureless and felt quite alone. Now, aged 33 and the founder and chief executive of Street Soccer (Scotland), he is the face and driving force of an organisation which uses football to change the lives of the disadvantaged and broken.

“Ten years ago I was on the streets,” he reflects. “I don’t think about it that much, but sometimes you have surreal wee moments. Last year I was in this palace in Qatar thinking, ‘I don’t know how I got here.’ I’m sitting having dinner with Lord Coe and ten years ago I didn’t know when I’d be getting my dinner. It’s weird how your life can change so quick. You need to pinch yourself, sometimes.”

We meet in his office on the top floor of the Sport Scotland building on the western fringes of Edinburgh. He lives in Corstorphine but pines for Leith, where he used to have a flat, as it reminds him of his beloved native Govan.

On his desk are his two crucial pieces of kit – iPhone and passport. Framed on the wall: a shirt signed by Wayne Rooney and a photo of Duke with the striker. He is a fan of Man Utd and Celtic, and these days rubs shoulders with the football stars who once seemed unattainable icons. Sir Alex Ferguson is the ambassador of Street Soccer, a situation which came about because Duke had the chutzpah – or, as he might say, the baws – to write and ask if he would do it. He finds Fergie an inspirational figure, both in his leadership skills and his enduring closeness to his roots, and it is a point of connection between them that both are Govanites first, Glaswegians second, and have all the characteristic thrawnness and blarney that birth in that district often confers.

Duke grew up in the Riverside housing scheme, hard by the Clyde, in the tough years of 1980s slump. He was the youngest of three, born ten years after his nearest sibling, “a fumble after the bingo” he reckons.

“Govan was a great place,” he recalls. “Everybody looked out for each other. There’s loads of big families. The people are proud to be from there. It helps when you’ve got Sir Alex coming from there. That adds a wee bit of glamour. But it was an area that was suffering on the back of the shipyards closing. My parents were both unemployed for most of the time. We had nothing. But you were in Govan and everybody was in the same boat. There was cohesion.”

Duke credits that childhood experience of community with giving him an ideal of how society should be – not the poverty, but the kindness of it, the togetherness. Those values guide his work now. Govan was also a whetstone for his present sharpness. “Streetwise. You’re used to meeting wide-os, so you need to be aware that somebody could take you for a fool.”

Tall and slender, handsome in a knocked-about-a-bit sort of way, Duke has brown eyes which are never still. They bespeak an active, perhaps even overactive brain. He’s got that slightly flashy, slightly cocky Glasgow thing, the silver tongue and Dolce & Gabbana denim, but the overall impression is one of depth and empathy. He claims, in fact, to be a little shy. He speaks an engaging patois of patter and social inclusion jargon. His intelligence, energy and authenticity are evident, and have led to offers of six-figure salaries from the corporate world. “But I’m not interested in that. I just like daein’ what ah dae. I’m passionate because football saved my life.”

He always loved football, right from when he was a child, playing for the school, for local boys’ teams, and around the neighbourhood. “Back in the eighties, you always had a ball at your feet. Kicking it off the wall that had the No Ball Games sign just because it told you not to. There was a wee square outside where we stayed. A bit of grass with a tree. That was one goal-post and a traffic cone was the other.”

Duke’s first idols were Manchester United players. Ryan Giggs, in particular, whom he now knows. “Giggsy, aye. I used to get all my fitba magazines for free. There used to be a John Menzies factory in Kinning Park and they’d this container skip full of last week’s magazines. We used to sneak through the hole in the fence, climb up the side, and jump right in it. There was the Man Utd magazine, Shoot. Then, as a double-bonus, a lot of magazines used to have free gifts – packets of sweeties, make-up and all that – ‘Aw, that’ll dae ma maw’s Christmas!’ I was only 12 or something. And we were looking for stuff we could sell on. That was like Disneyland for me. A big skip full of magazines.”

Duke’s mother sometimes worked as caretaker of the local community hall, and his father had been in the navy before becoming a lorry driver. But, like he says, for most of the time they were out of work; his dad had problems with alcohol that made it especially hard for him to work. Duke had no real sense of being poor until he started secondary school in Renfrew, where he encountered children from better-off families.

“I didn’t fit in at Trinity High,” he says. “I left at the end of first year. I was coming from a house and a background where I didn’t really get support in the way the other kids did. My behaviour wasn’t bad, but it was disruptive. I was always wanting to carry on and show off in front of the lassies. So I left and went to St Gerard’s in Govan. But by third and fourth year, I was dodging school. School didn’t mean that much to me. I was bright. See maths and English? At the end of second year I was getting credit and I hadn’t even studied. I think the teachers were frustrated. They knew I wasn’t doing my homework, but I’d still come in and get all the questions right.”

Natural intelligence, then, but his interests lay elsewhere. He saw that his dad wasn’t earning, so he devised schemes for getting money. “I had a deal going at Ibrox with the stewards. They would give me the tickets that they confiscated off drunks and then I’d go and sell them.”

Another wheeze was to pirate videos, renting out the latest releases to neighbours in the scheme at a lower price than they’d pay in the local shop. “Nico was a classic,” he recalls. “Steven Seagal at his best. It’s up there with Karate Kid. Nico got me that scar.” He points to a small cross shape at the side of his left eye. Caught trying to sneak the cover of the video for photocopying, he was chased round the shop by the man-mountain behind the counter, and ran face-first into one of the shelves, cutting himself badly. “Needs must,” he shrugs. “I never really got involved in crime. Breaking into cars – that wasn’t me. I was a Del Boy.”

This wheeler-dealer mindset is now put to use for Street Soccer, but Duke remains, at heart, the gallus teen with the scalped Rangers tickets and the dodgy VHS. He still gets a buzz out of new money-making ideas, and plans – next year – to launch a digital magazine, Socioball, to help fund Street Soccer and similar projects around the world. He also intends to start a consultancy business, again geared towards social change.

When he was 13 years old, his parents split up. His mother moved to Dalmuir and he stayed with his father in Govan. He was worried about his dad’s alcohol use and didn’t want to leave him. They lived together, on and off, until Duke was in his late teens. “It was really, really tough at certain points. Just having no structure in the household. Sometimes I had to go and get him from the pub.”

Did it teach him a lot of responsibility? He nods. “I could stand up for myself. I could probably do things at the age of 12 that most people were doing at 18. How to deal with life, how to deal with people, how to make and manage money. But I had an older head than most 18-year-olds.”

On leaving school without qualifi­cations, he began an apprenticeship as a panel beater. He also worked as a double-glazing salesman and later on the front desk at a branch of Arnold Clark. But the six months he spent in the latter position were difficult. He had lost touch with his dad, and he was going out drinking all the time. When he was 21, his father died, aged 57, as a consequence of his alcoholism.

“When you’re close to somebody and you lose them it’s a shock, especially when it’s kind of sudden,” says Duke. “I didn’t know how to deal with grief. People around me, my sister, were suffering and grieving. I just cut myself off, blocked it out as if it wasn’t there, and disappeared. I was working in a pub on the southside and trying to deal with it, but over a period of time I was drinking more and not turning up for work, which made me lose my job. I was seeing a lassie at the time but ended up finishing up with her. I lost everything round about me. I lost my flat. That’s how I ended up on the streets.”

Duke stayed in a series of hostels including the one on Norman Street, known as The Love Boat on account of the fact that it catered for both men and women who were homeless. “They were all quite scary. A lot of heroin abuse and fights and stabbings. People were always out their face. You try to stay away. Keep yourself to yourself.”

He got to hear about the James Shields Project – self-contained flats in the Gorbals for young homeless people. He got a place there, and was assigned a worker, Alice, who tried to sort out the “broken bottles” in his head and persuade him to put down the half-empty ones in his hands. “I was drinking all the time, but mostly through being in such a hole. Drinking to take the pain away and blot things out.”

Was alcohol an addiction? “It was a crutch. Alice said, ‘You need to fling your crutch away and stand on your own two feet.’”

One day he saw a poster advertising trials for the Homeless World Cup. He tried out, starting training, cutting down on the drink, getting fit, and found himself picked as part of the Scotland team competing in Gothenburg. The tournament went well. Scotland finished fourth. “When I came back I was still homeless. That hadn’t changed. I’d still lost my dad. But what I did have was a wee bit of motivation, a wee bit of confidence.”

He started volunteering with a local boys’ team, and was touched to find they regarded him as a role model – not just for his skills, but also for the motivating way in which he spoke. That was a real turning point. He didn’t want to let the kids down. It was also moving, he found, to be admired and respected. Indeed, the aspect of his success – the awards and admiration, the honorary doctorate from Queen Margaret University – which he now finds most satisfying is the pride his mother takes in his achievements. “She’s always talking about me, and she has pictures up in the house. Ten years ago that wasn’t the case. She was worried then about people talking about me.”

During a spell at Falkirk FC, coaching their youth team, he also studied for an HNC in community work. He went on to work full-time for the Big Issue Foundation and become manager of Scotland’s Homeless World Cup Squad. In 2007, having entered the tournament ranked 33rd, they won the title, beating Poland 9-3 in the final in Copenhagen. “Honestly?” he says. “It was the best day of my life. Until the day I get married or have a child, that’ll be the best day ever. Because it meant so much.”

Every fortnight he travels to Copenhagen to see his girlfriend, who is in a similar line of work over there; his Danish isn’t up to much, but he is considering watching Borgen with a view to improvement. He’d like to settle down, and has been told he’d be a good dad, which – given his background – must be a moving thing to hear, but he knows he’s “hard work”, always up late on the phone and email, grafting away, mind in overdrive.

In March 2009, he founded Street Soccer (Scotland), the idea being to help others – both men and women – experience, as he did, the transforming power of sport. Regular drop-in football sessions, free to anyone over 16, are available in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.

Street Soccer also offers courses in employment skills and coaching. It’s all about building self-esteem, improving mental and physical health. “At the start, everybody gets a hug,” Duke says. “Everybody gets an arm round them. ‘Be part of us, be part of the family.’”

He is an interesting man. There’s little sense of fragility. His difficult experiences have given him a kind of mental agility and strength, like a boxer who has trained in heavy boots so he’s nimbler in the ring. He is an excellent communicator, and one senses that he values networking – all those high heidyins in his phone – not just for how it can help his cause, but also because, as a young man who once felt isolated and adrift from society, there is a comfort, even a sense of safety, in social contact. He has fallen so low and come so far, and it will be fascinating to see what David Duke does next.

“In 10 years’ time, I could be in a homeless project again… or First Minister,” he says. “You just never know with life.”

For further information tel: 0131-339 0011 or see; David Duke is on Twitter as @MrDavidDuke